Jabhat al-Nusra’s New Syria Strategy

Jabhat al-Nusra is reformulating its strategy in Syria to gain local support, writes Murad Batal al-Shishani.

Topics covered

jabhat al-nusra, syrian conflict, islamists

Jan 14, 2013

Mustafa Abdul Qadir Setmariam — also known as Abu Musab al-Suri — is one of the most important theorists in the jihadist-Salafist movement, and his writings have influenced the behavior of jihadist-Salafist groups across the world. Suri was arrested in the capital of Pakistan's Balochistan province in 2005, and — according to a number of American sources — was handed over to Syria. It was rumored that he was released after the outbreak of the revolution, but this has yet to be confirmed. He has written a number of books on "confronting the Alawites in Syria," and also wrote a number of texts on "the failure of the jihadist experience in Syria" in the 1980s.

One of his most important books in this regard is his monumental text published in the 1980s, entitled The Islamic Jihadist Revolution in Syria. This book consists of two parts: the first is "The Experience and Lessons: Hopes and Pains," while the second part is entitled "Ideology and Approach: Research and Foundation in the Way of Armed Revolutionary Jihad." The book includes 17 reasons for the "failure of the Jihadist experience" in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, regarding the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Combatant Vanguard organization.

Iraqi influence

Suri’s ideas emerged at the start of the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, when al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia appeared as a key player in Iraq. In a study published in 2006, the Combating Terrorism Center — part of the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York — intended to analyze Suri's vision for "the failure of the Jihadist experience in Syria," to measure how much these groups had benefited from his work. The study found that it was very likely that al-Qaeda had benefited from the lessons noted by Suri in the aforementioned text, and included this in a special file. The study also found that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq before his death in 2006, avoided the errors of the "jihadist experience in Syria" in relation to strategic planning, the use of media, the creation of a central command, not relying on foreign governments and other topics cited by Suri. However, the study found that Zarqawi was unable to avoid two key mistakes that Suri had referenced in the "Syrian experience," namely failing to attract local support and avoiding being characterized as extremist.

The failure to attract local support has always been a main reason for jihadists' failure to find safe havens in a number of regions throughout the world (such as Sudan, pre-Taliban Afghanistan, Chechnya and — most notably — Iraq). This failure goes back to the fact that members of jihadist currents were always treated as guests, and to the nature of radical jihadist-Salfafist ideology. As a result, since 2008 al-Qaeda has changed its strategy to attract local support and to adopt a different rhetoric.

The Osama bin Laden documents

With the emergence of the Arab Spring movements in 2011, and the feeling that the jihadist movement had lost its ideological influence by virtue of its absence from the scene, adopting new rhetoric became essential to the movement. A number of books were written on this subject, which were accompanied by the establishment of new entities with uncontroversial names that aimed to attract local support, such as "Ansar al-Sharia" in Yemen. This group, as well as others that were intellectually close to the movement, assumed the movement's name, even if they were not organizationally linked to the global jihad movement.

It is noteworthy that the Osama bin Laden documents released by the US administration included a message supposedly written by the al-Qaeda leader prior to his death, in which he discusses the idea of changing the name of al-Qaeda to something more appealing. Yet it is necessary to note that these documents cannot be analyzed carefully because they reflect what the US administration wanted us to know, and only a portion of the thousands of documents were released.

Whatever the case, the repressive measures used by the Syrian regime against peaceful demonstrators since the outbreak of the revolution pushed the revolution towards militarization. Thus, jihadists — represented by Jabhat al-Nusra, alongside other local jihadist groups — found a route to Syria as a "new land of jihad," as it is referred to in their literature. Jabhat al-Nusra's military influence began to increase, but more importantly the movement's strategy in Syria allowed them to gain local support, as evidenced by demonstrations condemning the US State Department's move to classify the group as a terrorist organization. Such support for jihadists is unprecedented in Syria.

Corresponding strategies

With regard to the harmony between the behavior of jihadist-Salafist groups and public discourse, Jabhat al-Nusra's strategy is still consistent with the overall vision of the jihadist-Salafist movement. A simple comparison between a speech given by Abu Mohammed Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, and a manual written by Atiyah Abd al-Rahman reveals many aspects of Jabhat al-Nusra's strategy in Syria. Julani's speech was posted on a jihadist site last month and responds to the groups classification as a terrorist organization. Rahman was killed in a US raid in 2011, and was one of al-Qaeda and the jihadist-Salafist movement's most important theorists. Like Julani's speech, Rahman's manual — entitled "The People's Revolution and the Fall of the Corrupt Arab Regime: The Demolishment of the Idol of Stability and the New Beginning" — was posted on a jihadist website. It concerns the Arab Spring, and was written after the fall of the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes in early 2011. Both Rahman and Julani offer advice for jihadists that reveal the nature of the strategy followed by these groups.

Rahman writes, "The reformers, the Mujahideen and the preachers of the Ummah must take this historic opportunity and spring into action and initiate or increase their preaching, education, reform and revitalization, in light of the freedom and opportunities now available in this post-revolution era…In summary, we call on the youth to understand matters properly, and not to be shortsighted, paralyzed nor hasty. There is no need to indulge in conflicts with various other factions in the Islamic movement."

For his part, Julani says, "Every member of Jabhat al-Nusra should not limit his allegiance to members of the group alone. We are not a political party, we are a group concerned with the affairs of Muslims in general, and in restoring the rights of the oppressed. Therefore, it is essential that we maintain good relations other groups and treat them well, regardless of their mistakes."

Rahman notes, "Let kindness and good manners and tolerance of people's various levels of understanding lead them. Let them always bear in mind that our Ummah is living in some very difficult and complex times, and only now has it started to try to rise up and get out of decades — rather centuries — of misery."

Julani says, "Day after day, you are getting closer to the people; you have entered their hearts and gained their trust. They saw the sincerity of your work, your great sacrifices, noble behavior, faithfulness and good character. This requires you to be more kind and compassionate towards them. The intense disdain you harbor for the enemies of God must be matched by equally intense love and compassion for the Muslim worshipers of God…Be careful not to tighten the noose around their necks.” He then added, “May your preaching be true and sincere.”

Based on this comparison, it is obvious that the critical situation in Syria has provided a new opportunity for the jihadist-Salafist movement. They had previously suffered from marginalization as a result of the Arab Spring in 2011, when Arab youth discovered that peaceful political action was more advantageous and effective than the violence that jihadists had pursued for decades. However, the violent response to these peaceful demonstrators in 2012 opened the door once again for jihadists to implement their new strategy, and to redevelop the movement in a new form assisted by the conditions on the ground.

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